Faculty Profile: Jeff Storer

Some days he’s an artist who teaches and some days he’s a teacher who makes art, but either way, Professor Jeff Storerthinks it is a happy advantage that he can be both—for him and his students.

In addition to being a professor of the practice and chair of the Department of Theater Studies at Duke, Storer is artistic director of Manbites Dog, a professional theater company he co-founded in 1986. The company is dedicated to world and regional premieres of contemporary work and is an integral player in the thriving Durham arts scene.

Storer’s passion is to show students how theater can fit into their education at Duke and ultimately into the fabric of their lives. He is a case study of life interwoven with theater.

“What I teach in the classroom is never far from my own work,” he says. “I’m that guy who started a theater company 29 years ago, and that’s who I am as a teacher. I can teach by example, fueled by my own artistic work.”

On campus, his intent is to provide a safe environment so students can discover for themselves who they are and how they can grow into their own vision of themselves as artists.

Storer has seen time and again the transformation that takes place when a student finds a place in theater. Sometimes it happens during productions. Because theater is not one of the art forms you can do by yourself—dozens are needed to bring a show to the stage—chances to be a part of a show abound. His department presents two faculty-directed shows a year and there are many additional productions mounted by students.

“The discovery is like a light bulb going off when a student’s understanding goes beyond the intellectual reading of the text and moves into the realm of their voices and bodies. That’s when it becomes real for them. The student clearly understands some aspect of the human condition that was illusive—that’s what theater is good at.

“I am always thinking, how can we help them get from here to there? It sounds like a Dr. Seuss phrase, I know, but as their professors, we happen to be a part of their now,” he says. “We have to be part information and part inspiration to keep them moving toward their vision.

“Art is really hard and there are moments when what you say or do as a professor is the difference in whether or not a person has courage to go forward in their art.” Storer still vividly remembers saying to a student back in 1998, “You can have this if you want it.”

And even if he didn’t remember, that student, Aaron Lazar, reminds him when they visit backstage at whatever Broadway show Lazar is starring in at the moment—for instance, Mamma Mia!, A Little Night Music, Les Miserables, or The Light in the Piazza. (Lazar told his version of the story last November, after a performance of Sting’s The Last Ship.)

“If I hadn’t been there and said that to him, would the outcome have been different?” Storer wonders.

Storer feels blessed he and his theater studies colleagues have had so many students who have done well professionally. He stays in touch with scores of them. That’s partly because it is his nature to maintain relationships, but it also means that he is able to introduce his current students to alumni who have gone on to work in the field. The connections he makes can open doors.

Storer also creates opportunities closer to home through his own theater company. Manbites Dog has served as a laboratory for Duke over the years by offering chances to be a part of professional theater to current students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Through the company he has created many internships that allow students to get course credit. Some students have done their first professional work at Manbites Dog, as well.

“Jeff gave me the opportunity to perform at Manbites Dog Theater Company while I was a student at Duke,” says Madeleine Lambert (T’08). “Working at a professional theater further inspired me to pursue a career in acting.”

Lambert has indeed gone on to a successful acting career and, like many others, she has maintained a close relationship with her former teacher. “Jeff Storer is an extraordinary professor, artist, and mentor,” she says.

Storer believes he and his colleagues in the arts need to do a better job of communicating the broad value of the subjects they teach. That’s especially true at a research institution, where scholars and administrators may not fully grasp both the intellectual and practical value of the arts.

“Theater skills are extraordinarily valuable skills.” he says. “Beyond acting and directing, theater teaches collaboration, problem solving, imaginative thinking, discipline. It teaches how to listen to narratives and stories of others and how to tell our own stories. I would suggest these are all things a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer need.”

In addition, he points out, “we teach in a way unlike any other discipline. We teach by being interactive and embodying, by doing rather than talking. We need to do a better job of selling that.”

Of the students who discover theater for themselves, he says, “they tell us their experience with us is different from any other on campus and that they are better communicators, thinkers, and problem solvers as a result of that experience.

“The arts are integral to living in society. Theater has been central to humanity since that first cave man came back and reenacted the killing of the beast to the community around the fire. It maintains our collective memory about the human condition. How spectacular to be in a culture that contains the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare as well as today’s stories!”

“We’re only here a moment. Art takes that moment and freezes it so we can understand ourselves better and know we’re not alone.”

Jeff Storer and Manbites Dog were recently honored by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association with the 2015 Hardee-Rives Dramatic Arts Award for “excellent, exemplary work in and significant contribution and service to the dramatic arts in North Carolina.”